The 29-Hour Drink

There is no reader question this week. Helena has a topic she’d like to address.

You may be the type of drinker who scorns vodka for a good bourbon and is happy to wait several minutes while your bartender chips away just the right-shaped ice for your cocktail. But not everyone is so enlightened. From talking to bartenders, I’ve learned that many patrons still don’t quite know what or how to order when confronted with a menu of fancy drinks. They’re baffled when, say, a revival tiki bar doesn’t stock cranberry juice, and they get impatient when their drink takes minutes rather than seconds to make. So how can a mixologist politely manage customers’ expectations without making them feel like cocktail ignoramuses?

1. Do some handholding.

Artisan cocktail bars can make people uncomfortable initially, says Toby Malone, partner in the Violet Hour bar in Chicago and Alchemy Consulting. “It’s an intimidating experience if you look at the back bar and don’t recognize many of the bottles. ... Intimidation leads to anxiety, and then the customer is mean because they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Handing the person a menu with explanations of unfamiliar terms helps, says Martin Cate, owner of the San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. If necessary, the bartender should ask probing questions to elicit the person’s taste, the same way a sommelier might, says Malone, such as: “Do you like sweet or tart; do you prefer something stirred or something shaken and effervescent?”

2. Don’t scorn a customer’s vodka choice.

It’s common for customers to ask for ingredients a bar doesn’t stock, say all the mixologists I interviewed, such as a particular vodka brand. “It’s the billboard mentality,” says Jason Kosmas, general manager and principal bartender of the Neighborhood Services Tavern in Dallas. “People think if they’ve seen it on a billboard you ought to stock it in the bar.” At Employees Only in New York City, where Kosmas worked until recently, “a bunch of banker types came in, guys’ guys. By 7:30 they were drunk.” One of them ordered a Red Bull and refused to believe that Kosmas didn’t carry it. “He was like, ‘My friend’s dying over here.’ Like in his mind I have an emergency can of Red Bull in a glass case that says ‘Break in case of douchebag.’”

Instead of explaining at length why you don’t stock something, focus on what you do have, says Cate. “Our approach is to offer an alternative, like, instead of a Red Bull and vodka, ‘I can make a great Cuba Libre with high-quality rum and an artisanal cola made with real botanicals.’”

3. Be honest about the wait.

Artisanal cocktails are usually labor-intensive. They may have a lot of ingredients. Plus, says Malone, “if the bartender is measuring everything properly and cracking the proper amount of ice … it takes time.” It’s always easier to wait if you’re expecting it and you know how long the wait will be. Cate tells people, “Please bear with us, this will take a few moments.” He adds that it helps to take the customer’s order immediately so he knows you’re not ignoring him. At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, I will pass on Malone’s tip for those who are feeling particularly thirsty: “Order a shot or a beer to have while you’re waiting.”

4. Ditch the attitude.

Cate points out that sometimes crafting a drink with excessive care “comes from a place of ego. It’s like, ‘I’m creating art, and you can’t rush art.’” So whenever they can, mixologists need to create a menu they can execute as quickly as possible by prepping syrups, purées, and cordials in advance.

Let’s face it: Even if it has nine ingredients, including two kinds of rum and house-made bitters, it’s still just a drink.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.